The tiny burner and he little bowl next to the body told the sad story. Professor Lawrence Maltby had finally managed to kill himself. Judging by the dark residue and the lingering scent of exotic spices, he had done himself in with a common street drug known as Chartreuse.
Lydia Smith left the doorway of the shabby bedroom that Maltby had converted into a study and crouched beside the professor's scrawny, crumpled form. She did not expect to find a pulse, and when she put her fingertips to the throat beneath the scraggly white beard, she proved herself right.
She shivered, rose quickly, stepped back, and reached into her shoulder bag for her personal phone. Her fingers trembled when she punched out the emergency number.
"Yes, that's right," she said, to the overstressed operator. "Humber Thirteen, Hidden Lane. First floor, apartment A. It's in the Old Quarter near the Wall."
"I'm sorry, ma'am, but that street isn't coming up on my city grid," the operator said brusquely. "Are you sure about the address?"
"Yes, I'm sure. Hidden Lane isn't on most city maps." Lydia took another step from the body. "Probably why they named it Hidden Lane. Look, just tell the medics to take Dead City Way to South Wall Street and turn left at the tavern on the corner. Once they're in the neighborhood, anyone can give them directions."
"All right." There was a short silence before the woman came back on the line. "They're on the way. I'm also sending a police car since you say there's a body."
The operator sounded as if she wasn't at all certain that Lydia could tell the difference between a dead body and the other sort.
"There is definitely a dead man in this apartment. Trust me, I've seen one before."
"Do not under any circumstances leave the scene, ma'am. Since you're the one who found the body, there will be a few formalities."
Formalities. Lydia felt the hair on the nape of her neck stir much the same way it had a few minutes ago when she had walked into Maltby's gloom-filled apartment and realized that something was horribly wrong.
In her experience formalities was not a good word.
Just a few formalities was the phrase the pompous members of the Academic Council had used to describe the farce of a formal inquiry they had staged before they had fired her from her position at the university seven months ago.
We need to go through some formalities, was how the police detective in charge of the investigation into Chester Brady's murder last month had termed the grilling that Lydia had been obliged to endure.
It wasn't her fault that she had been the first person to stumble across Chester's body in that ancient alien sarcophagus, she thought. And there was no reason to hold her responsible for the fact that she had been the first one to find Maltby's body today.
It was just her bad luck that she had walked in on this mess, she told herself. It could have been anyone. The door of Maltby's apartment had been unlocked when she had arrived a few minutes ago, so naturally she had put her head inside to call his name. After all, he was the one who had asked her to stop by his place this morning.
"Look, this isn't a crime scene or anything," she said quickly. "Professor Maltby wasn't murdered. It looks like he OD'd on Chartreuse. There's no point in having me stick around to answer a lot of questions. I don't have any answers."
The operator was unmoved. "I'm sorry, ma'am, but rules are rules. Stay right where you are until the police and the medics arrive."
"Yeah, sure." Lydia ended the call abruptly. She glanced once more at the body and then quickly looked away.
A knock sounded loudly on the front door of the apartment, shattering the unnatural stillness of the death room.
She hesitated, uncertain whether or not to respond. She still didn't hear any sirens, which ruled out the possibility that Maltby's visitor was a medic or a cop. Given the character of the neighborhood, that left a lot of unpleasant possibilities.
She pondered the wisdom of simply ignoring the knock. Then she recalled that the door was unlocked. Whoever was out there in the hall might decide to try his luck with the knob at any moment.
It would probably be a really good idea to go into the front room and lock the door.
She hurried out of the study, went down the short hall, and traversed the dingy sitting room on tiptoe. There was a peephole in the heavily reinforced door. Trying not to give away her presence, she put her eye to the little circle of glass. At the same time she reached out to throw the bolt.
She stopped when she saw the man standing in the shadowy hall. A day's growth of dark beard, scarred boots, rugged khaki pants and shirt, and a battered leather jacket added up to one conclusion. This was the kind of guy who looked like he'd make an interesting date if you were in a mood to take a walk on the wild side, but you would definitely not want to run into him in a dark alley on a moonless night.
His eyes were a disturbing combination of gold and green. He had the hard, implacable features of a man who was accustomed to being in command.
She yanked open the door and threw herself into Emmett's arms.
"You don't know how glad I am to see you," she said into his shirt. "How did you find me?"
"I called your office. Melanie told me you were here." He put an arm around her shoulders and glanced back to check the grimy hallway. Satisfied, he moved both of them into the apartment and closed the door. "What the hell are you doing in this part of town?"
"Maltby, the man who lives here, said he wanted to see me. When I arrived I found him lying on the floor of his study." She took a deep breath. "He's sort of dead."
Emmett looked pained. "Not another one."
She frowned. "This isn't like the last time. It looks like Maltby took an overdose of Chartreuse. I called for an ambulance." She sighed. "Not that it will do any good."
"Where is he?"
The stoic resignation in his voice annoyed her. "You don't have to act as if I make a habit of finding dead bodies." She waved a hand toward the study. "He's in the room down that hall."
Emmett walked to the doorway of the study. She trailed after him, clutching her purse.
"This is not good," Emmett said.
"Yes, well, it's a lot worse for Maltby."
"That's not what I meant. Some complications have come up. The last thing we need right now is a dead body."
He disappeared into the study.
Copyright © 2004 by Jayne Castle.